LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) – Examining the scope of the opioid crisis in the greater La Crosse community, many find themselves struggling while plenty look forward to a future free from addiction. But finding a solution starts by knowing the enemy.
It’s not what some might consider a “big city” issue, or so said La Crosse County health educator Al Bliss. But it is a problem that Bliss said is at a bottleneck moment, reaching the choke point in the county over the last couple of years.
“It wasn’t until 2017 when we saw the highest number of drug overdose deaths at 29,” said Bliss. “In just this past year we’ve seen a slight decrease from 29 to 25.”
The numbers also pose a problem for those who survive an encounter with drugs. Recent booking statistics show drug and alcohol detox cases made up 41% in 2017 with a similar story—around 39% in 2016.
Numbers only tell part of the story. To get the full picture, you’d have to keep in mind that each number has a name—like Chad Pergande.
“Don’t give up on drug addicts because there’s always a fighting chance.” – Chad Pergande
Raising cattle and grilling steaks even on the dreariest of days, you wouldn’t know by looking at him now that the 31-year-old faced the grueling fires of pain and addiction that nearly killed him. And it all started with a single moment when Chad was just nine years old.
“July 4th we were out celebrating my sister’s birthday, out waterskiing, and when we were putting the boat on the trailer, I went down to the boat landing and slipped on the algae. That’s when I fell and shattered my femur and my growth plate,” said Chad.
It’s a moment that ignited the need to deal with ever-more painful aftermath over the course of more than a dozen procedures.
“I developed Avascular necrosis, so my hip died actually…My dad had to come out every morning and turn my bones in on my knee, the tibia and fibula to try to straighten it back out…I would wake up in excruciating pain, and it’s just like someone’s stabbing you a million times in the leg.”
To cope, Chad continued taking the painkillers prescribed to him by doctors, but through the years he built up a tolerance. And when cut off from the opioids, Chad found his fix elsewhere.
“The next thing you know, I turned to the street.”
Seeking ever more potent solutions, Chad found himself fading fast. He first called a local medical center, but was told the waiting list for an addiction therapy program was two years long. He recalled telling the person who took his call:
“I’m going to die if I don’t get help.”
Thankfully, Chad had an alliance to help him heal, a best friend in his dog, a loving mother and recovery through a place called Addiction Medical Solutions of Wisconsin just off Highway 16 in Onalaska. Instead of years, AMS got him in the next day.
“[We] always keep the door open,” said AMS of Wisconsin executive director, Tom Bolan.
With about 350 people currently seeking treatment at his facility, Bolan said addiction clearly continues to be a steady crisis, but he’s encouraged by the scope of solutions locally—particularly the Alliance to HEAL, a group working in part to ensure there’s simply always somewhere to turn.
Bolan said, “Getting providers together, what happens is you start to eliminate the gaps, and when you can eliminate the gaps in providers and services—a person going here or going there and then there’s this couple week gap—[we] start to ensure positive outcomes.”
It’s one way Alliance members are turning numbers into names.
Bliss added that the goal is “to be able to get down to that human level to help everyone.”
And Chad Pergande wants his story of survival to serve as a voice for those facing the fight of their life. His message: “Don’t give up on drug addicts because there’s always a fighting chance.”
The Alliance to HEAL is working at finding ways to get people connected with recovery sooner, but its still a work in progress. Bliss said a survey of about 100 people in recovery showed their average wait time was about a month.
This story is a part of a WXOW news special, Hooked To Heal, which takes a look at the impact the opioid crisis is having on the Coulee Region. The special airs Thursday, May 23, 2019 at 6:30 p.m.